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New Madrid Fault

November 6, 2011 by staff 

New Madrid Fault, Marian McDonald says she was raised on the stories of “the big shake.” Now she wants to share those stories and more as Southeast Missouri prepares to mark the 200th anniversary of the earthquakes that shook much of the United States.
McDonald and Dr. David Stewart, the author of “The Earthquake America Forgot,” a book about the New Madrid earthquakes, have created a presentation that combines history, science and even earthquake preparedness tips. They plan to take the presentation on the road in November and December.

“Our main thing is to educate the public about earthquake awareness, McDonald said.

But they will also entertain their audiences. McDonald will portray Eliza Bryan, who in 1811 was living in New Madrid and wrote about the quakes that changed the landscape of the Midwest. Stewart will provide the technical information.

“I got that plum role,” said McDonald with a laugh. She called Bryan one of the best recorders of the quake and how the residents responded.

“I will use her words as much as possible,” she said. “She left clear and graphic descriptions.”

Bryan wrote of the noise created by the quakes, which began Dec. 16, 1811, with another on Jan. 23 of the next year and one of the hardest shocks recorded on Feb. 7, 1812. McDonald acknowledged that scientists have no way of measuring the magnitude of those quakes but said the consensus is the three were of at least a magnitude 8 and were followed by countless aftershocks.

As an eyewitness, Bryan described the dust from the quakes which blacked out the starlit sky. “At one point [Bryan] writes the earth was in continuous motions, she called it like ‘waves on a gentle sea,’” McDonald said.

While there will be some history, having Stewart, who is considered an authority on the New Madrid earthquakes, in the program will enable them to introduce the science behind earthquakes, McDonald said. Materials provided by the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium and U.S. Geological Survey will be included in the presentation.

Stewart said he agreed to take part because he saw it as a creative, fun way to present information. Also, he said, it is almost like having a dream come true.

“Here I have spent years researching the New Madrid earthquakes and it would have been wonderful to talk to an eyewitness, but, of course, it was 200 years ago. So here is a situation where Eliza Bryan, who was a schoolteacher and wrote extensively about the events, and I ‘talk’ to her in person,” he said.

According to Stewart, while McDonald will use a script to recreate Eliza Bryant, his part will be more spontaneous. But, the pair agreed, their goal is the same.

“Our objective is to educate the public … to bring out the reality of what an earthquake is for the audience,” she said.

Stewart and McDonald both noted no one can predict when an earthquake will occur or how big it will be. However, they said, it would be wise for those along the New Madrid fault to be prepared.

The region experiences small earthquakes every day, Stewart pointed out, and quakes between magnitude 2.5 to 4 several times a year. The probability for a quake such as those that shook the region 200 years ago are unlikely, he said.

But, he said, the Earth continues to shift putting pressure on weak areas such as the New Madrid fault.

“All those little earthquakes aren’t relieving stress. It’s like an arrhythmia before a heart attack. They don’t prevent a heart attack, they just tell you something is wrong. Well, we get warning signs daily that someday we will have the big one,” said Stewart, adding it will likely be in the range of a magnitude 6 or 7 within the next two decades.

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